William Briggs

Quick Info

21 September 1861
Leeds, England
19 June 1932
At sea off Arousa Bay, Spain

William Briggs was the founder and first Principal of the University Correspondence College and the University Tutorial College in London. He set up the University Tutorial Press with printing and book-binding works. He co-authored many mathematics texts designed for private study published by his Press.


William Briggs was the son of Edwin Briggs (1836-1921) and Mary Ann Barron (1837-1907). Edwin Briggs was a marble and stone mason. William attended the Yorkshire College of Science in Leeds which had been established in 1874. This College, after being a college of Victoria University, became the University of Leeds in 1904. Briggs became an undergraduate at the University of London in 1881. After his studies in London, in 1883 he was appointed to St Benedict's College, Fort Augustus, Scotland. This College opened in October 1878 as part of St Benedict's Monastery and College. The monastery became an Abbey directly under the authority of the Pope, breaking away from the English Benedictine Congregation in January 1883. At St Benedict's College, Briggs inaugurated a system of correspondence teaching which he would develop later in London.

In 1887 Briggs left St Benedict's College, Fort Augustus, and in that year he matriculated at the University of Cambridge as a non-collegiate student. This category of non-collegiate student had been discussed for two decades before it was accepted in 1869. It provided a cheaper route for students who saved the expenses of the Colleges by finding cheap accommodation in the town. Briggs was admitted as a pensioner at Jesus College in October 1889. A pensioner paid their own tuition fees and for their food. He studied the Mathematical Tripos and graduated with a B.A. in 1890. He then studied the Law Tripos and was awarded an LL.B. in 1891 and an LL.M. in 1895.

Briggs married Ada Eliza Wright (1865-1896) on 29 April 1882 in Leeds. They had nine children, four of whom died as babies: Lilian Ada Marie Briggs (1882-1884); William Frank Burrell Briggs (1884-1884); William Robertson Briggs (1885-1968); Frank Clive Briggs (1887-1887); Elsie Baron Briggs (1889-1982); Constance Marie Briggs (1891-1958); Wilfrid Baron Briggs (1893-1893); Winifred Baron Briggs (1894-1977); Cecil Baron Briggs (1896-1969).

Having gained some experience on setting up a correspondence system at St Benedict's, Briggs founded the University Correspondence College in London in 1887. Alan Tait writes in [17] that the:-
... University of London in 1858 [opened up] a range of programmes for external study: that is to say that students could follow the University of London curriculum for a range of degrees and sit the examinations without ever setting foot in London. ... The University of London has been termed the first 'Open University' because of this move, and students all round the world, but principally within the British Empire and its dominions, were soon looking for tutorial support to supplement the bare syllabus they received on registration wherever they lived. The history of the University Correspondence College and its founder William Briggs provides an insight into the pioneering work, which began in 1887 in providing support to those studying with the University of London at a distance. Briggs' college provided a correspondence tuition scheme by post, along with face to face day and evening teaching in London and Cambridge, short residential schools, and the production and sale of specially written texts to help students. Briggs thus prefigured the range of services taken up in modern distance education ..., and his system was very effective. It provided, first of all, support for a crucial opening for women to study for degrees wherever they lived, at a time when they were still excluded from the ancient universities in England.
An important part of the University Correspondence College was producing a large range of books that would be suitable for students to study on their own. Briggs, who became the Principal of the University Correspondence College, set up his own publishing company, the University Tutorial Press, in London. But he went further than just a publishing company by also having a printing and bookbinding works at Foxton, near Cambridge. The Correspondence College soon expanded to provide tutorial teaching both in London and in Cambridge. In London the College had premises at 27 Red Lion Square.

Having a publishing company was only useful if he could get authors to write books. Briggs, himself, co-authored many of the texts producing a whole range of mathematics books with G H Bryan. The books were very popular and ran to many editions. Of the 23 books of Bryan which we list, 15 are joint Briggs-Bryan works; see THIS LINK.

To see a little of the ideas that went into Briggs' books, we give a brief extract from the Preface to Briggs and Bryan's The elements of coordinate geometry:-
This book is written with the conviction that the subject is not too difficult for the ordinary undergraduate who does not aspire to mathematical honours, if the course is carefully graded, and divided into cosy stages. We have tried to realise the position of the average learner, and have constantly borne in mind the needs of the private student: each time, after providing sufficient material for a new set of ideas, we have given illustrative examples, which, in addition to their ordinary use, may be taken as a reminder to review the whole of the ground covered since the last set. It is not sufficient to understand; it is necessary to fix the fresh facts in the mind, and to note their relation to previous ones as they occur. The reader will, we are sure, appreciate the pains we have taken in beginning and ending on a page each important piece of bookwork, and the clearness gained by spacing out the lines of bookwork to be learnt for reproduction.
It was not only the UK market that Briggs aimed at, for he sought to enter the American market as well. The American arm was run by W B Clive who writes about The elements of coordinate geometry in The Bookseller, Volume 1894:-
The practical value of Messrs Briggs and Bryan's text-book is raised by its appearance in a further reprint. The clearness with which the subject is stated and typographically arranged, renders the work an invaluable assistant to the private student.
The review of Text-Book of Dynamics, another Briggs-Bryan book, in [2] reads:-
The University Correspondence College, represented in this country [USA] by W B Clive, 65 Fifth Avenue, New York, began this school year [1894] with an enrolment of 740. This is one of the most helpful of the schemes for home culture of a high order. There are studentships and prizes amounting to $1,000. The staff of tutors comprise fifteen graduates who took first-class honours at the university examinations, and six honour men. The text-books, of which this on dynamics is one of the best, are all reliable, complete, and adapted to home study under correspondence direction.
Briggs wrote books with other co-authors, and in The Bookseller, Volume 1894 we also see listed his chemistry book Elementary qualitative analysis, co-authored with R W Stewart. In 1897 he edited the book General Elementary Science. Briggs writes in the Preface to the First Edition:-
Strange as the new subject may appear at first, we think the University of London has acted wisely in including General Elementary Science as a compulsory subject for the Matriculation Examination. For whether intended as a preliminary course which may form a systematic, though elementary, basis for future scientific study, or as a general encouragement for candidates, who do not mean to pursue the Science curriculum of the University, to regard the working of Nature in everyday life, and to provide them with the means of recording observations with some degree of exactness, it is alike to be commended.

To gain that exactness - which is the very essence of Science - it has been deemed desirable to enlist the services of specialists in each of the three sections of the new subject; but for this striving after accuracy, it might appear ridiculous to consider the co-operation of the following well-known authors desirable in so elementary a text-book:-

In Section I., Professor Bryan, D.Sc., F.R.S., and A G Cracknell, M.A.
In Section II., John Don, M.A., B.Sc., who has had the works of R W Stewart, D.Sc., in the "University Tutorial Series" placed at his disposal.
In Section III., G H Bailey, D.Sc., Ph.D., and Fred Beddow, D.Sc., Ph.D.
Briggs writes in the Preface to the Second Edition of 1898:-
The fact that a first edition of six thousand copies has been exhausted within five months of publication shows that this work has met the want created by the new London Matriculation syllabus. Advantage has been taken of this to effect certain alterations in the text, all of which the General Editor hopes will increase the value of the work.
In 1890 he published the 134 page book Intermediate mathematics. A guide to the mathematics of the intermediate examinations in arts and science of the University of London. By the principal of University correspondence college.

As well as the large amount of effort that Briggs was putting into the University Correspondence College, he continued to work for a doctorate and a treatise on the law of international copyright The law of international copyright: with special sections on the colonies and the United states of America led to him being awarded an LL.D. in 1902.

Of course, Briggs' University Correspondence College and Tutorial College taught a wide range of topics, not just mathematics. Realising that biology was becoming important as a subject, he looked for someone to employ as a tutor and found H G Wells (who of course is today very well-known as a science-fiction writer). Wells wanted to be a teacher but had failed his final examinations at the Normal School of Science (later Imperial College, London). He had studied with T H Huxley and Briggs saw that he had the talent to become a good teacher. Briggs employed Wells as a tutor, both teaching students by correspondence and giving evening classes for students at the Tutorial College. Briggs encouraged Wells to write a textbook for his University Tutorial Press and he wrote Text-book of Biology published in 1893. The first edition had diagrams drawn by Wells which reviewers criticised, so a second edition was published with diagrams drawn by Amy Catherine Robbins, one of the students studying at the University Tutorial College. This edition was well received and, we note, Wells later married Amy Catherine Robbins.

Briggs' University Correspondence College and Tutorial College moved briefly to Booksellers' Row in the Strand, but by 1909 was back in Red Lion Square, now at 32. In 1911, at this Red Lion Square base, it had large science laboratories which were used for teaching all year round. In 1939, Cecil Baron Briggs, Briggs' youngest son, took over as Principal of the Correspondence College and Tutorial College. There are advertisements in The Times (13 January 1941) advertising its courses in preparation for the University of London and other professional entrance examinations.

Let us return for a moment to Briggs' family life. We have seen the tragedy of the deaths of four babies, but, on 18 September 1896, his wife Ada Eliza Briggs died aged 33 years. From 1905 Briggs lived at Owlbrigg, Chaucer Road, Trumpington (although at the 1911 census the house is listed as: Occupier, Dr Briggs, Uninhabited) and we certainly know that from 1920 Margaret Briggs, William Briggs' second wife, also lived at this address. We have no information as to when he married Margaret, but she attended the two memorial services held after his death. Let us first note that Briggs died at sea in Arousa Bay, off the coast of Spain. The two memorial services are described in [18] and [19]. One was on 27 June 1932 at St John's Church, Red Lion Square, London. We note that this church was destroyed in the bombing during World War II in 1941. The second memorial service was held in Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge. The Dean of the College officiated and the Master of the College read the lessons. Twelve tutors from the University Correspondence College attended as did W Beckit Burnie (Deputy Principal, University Correspondence College), Arnold Saxelbye (Vice-Principal, University Correspondence College), and B A Foyle (University Tutorial Press).

Finally we quote from [12]:-
[Briggs] was generous benefactor to Jesus College and founded a Trust for helping undergraduates of the College who required financial help to continue their education. He was a prominent Freemason and was a past Grand Treasurer of England. Direct connections with astronomy that may be mentioned are that he was a member of the large party that made the voyage to Vadsö, Norway, to see the eclipse of the sun in 1896, and an excellent treatise on Mathematical Astronomy by Barlow and Bryan was written at his instigation.
They may have gone "to see the eclipse of the sun" but they did not see it since there was total cloud cover.

References (show)

  1. Anon, Review: Worked Examples in Co-ordinate Geometry, by William Briggs and G H Bryan, Nature 49 (1255) (1893), 52.
  2. Anon, Review: Text-Book of Dynamics, by William Briggs and G H Bryan, The Journal of Education 41 (8) (1016) (1895), 131.
  3. Anon, Review: The Tutorial Trigonometry, by William Briggs and G H Bryan, The Journal of Education 47 (1) (1160) (1898), 11.
  4. Anon, Review: A Middle Algebra, based on the Algebra of Radhakrishnan, by William Briggs and G H Bryan, The Educational Times and Journal of the College of Preceptors 51 (1898), 505-506.
  5. Anon, Review: Matriculation Mechanics (3rd edition), by William Briggs and G H Bryan, Nature 94 (2343) (1914), 88.
  6. A Barton, Review: The Tutorial Algebra (6th edition), by W Briggs, G H Bryan and G Walker, The Mathematical Gazette 39 (330) (1955), 336-337.
  7. J M C, Review: Text-Book of Dynamics, by William Briggs and G H Bryan, Amer. Math. Monthly 4 (4) (1897), 125.
  8. D Colville, University Tutorial College, University College London (13 April 2011).
  9. N M Gibbins, Review: Tutorial Algebra. I. (5th edition), by W Briggs, G H Bryan and G Walker, The Mathematical Gazette 25 (264) (1941), 127-128.
  10. N M Gibbins, Review: Tutorial Algebra. II. Advanced Course (5th edition), by W Briggs, G H Bryan and G Walker, The Mathematical Gazette 26 (272) (1942), 237-238.
  11. R L Goodstein, Review: Tutorial Algebra. Vol. II (6th edition), by W Briggs, G H Bryan and G Walker, The Mathematical Gazette 41 (338) (1957), 314-316.
  12. H P H, Obituary Notices: Fellows:- Briggs, William, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 93 (1933), 225-226.
  13. G M M, Review: Advanced Mechanics. Vol. II. Statics, by William Briggs and G H Bryan, The Mathematical Gazette 1 (10) (1897), 95-96.
  14. R M Milne, Review: Matriculation Mechanics (3rd edition), by William Briggs and G H Bryan, The Mathematical Gazette 7 (114) (1914), 433.
  15. F S M, Review: The Tutorial Trigonometry, by William Briggs and G H Bryan, The Mathematical Gazette 1 (12) (1897), 143-144.
  16. Obituary: Dr William Briggs, The Times (29 June 1932).
  17. A Tait, Reflections on Student Support in Open and Distance Learning, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 4 (1) (2003).
  18. Dr William Briggs, The Times (28 June 1932).
  19. Dr William Briggs, The Times (29 June 1932).
  20. Dr William Briggs, Cambridge Review (14 October 1932).

Additional Resources (show)

Other pages about William Briggs:

  1. Times obituary
  2. Briggs-Bryan's books

Other websites about William Briggs:

  1. zbMATH entry
  2. ERAM Jahrbuch entry

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

Last Update January 2021